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The Allies in Normandy

LAURENCE REES: Substantial elements of the image of the Allies being greeted as conquering heroes when they entered Normandy are a myth, aren’t they?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I think if you are used to seeing the liberation of Europe from only the perspective of American, British and Canadian soldiers quite literally moving from the landing beaches up the hills and the beaches of Normandy and then into the landscape beyond, you’re used to telling one kind of story which is of heroism and sacrifice, genuine terror and moments of sheer panic, but ultimate triumph and breakthrough militarily. But if you reverse the perspective and you look at it entirely from the perspective of those people on the receiving end of that moment of liberation on June 6th 1944 what do those events look like through their eyes? And if you want to know what those events look like through their eyes you have to go back and get into their mindset. You have to go back and get into their lives and get into their experiences, not just on June 6th but of the whole proceeding 4 years.

The proceeding 4 years of occupation in France and in Normandy in particular were very difficult. These are people who have gone through a long period of privation, suffering and difficulty. The Germans had occupied the coastline intensively and they had fortified it intensely. They had used local labour and they had arrested Resistance Members. It had been a period of real and intensifying terror on the part of the French civilians. Then you intensify the picture by bringing in the beginnings of the bombings that preceded June 6th, and so before June 6th there was a long period of fairly regular, fairly daily, bombing all across Normandy. Then on June 5th, that terrible night, the heaviest bombing of the Second World War up to that point occurred in Normandy, so the beaches and the towns just beyond the beaches were absolutely flattened by heavy saturation RAF American bombing the night before the landings. The day of June 6th itself is a moment of intense terror for the residents because their towns, villages and schools are all going up in smoke and they know that this is the liberators doing the work of defeating the Germans militarily.

I think there’s an intellectual understanding that this is the beginning of what might become liberation. But they don’t know yet what’s around the corner. Its only June 6th 1944 so there’s almost a whole year of the Second World War still to come, and they don’t know if these landings will be successful. All they know is that intensive bombing has shattered their homes and their towns and that they have paid a very heavy price. About 20,000 French civilians will die in the summer of 1944 in the Battle of Normandy. These are civilians who had no military training, no preparations and had already suffered through 4 years of occupation. So this is the broad context and as those Allied Soldiers come up the hill on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 and June 7. It’s no surprise to find that people are afraid, they’re worried, they’re frightened. Intellectually they probably know that these men wish them well but armed men coming in a hail of bullets and violence onto their own personal neighbourhood and their own villages is a terrifying moment. It’s not a moment of levity and its not a moment of celebration, it is a moment of fear and of survival.

LAURENCE REES: So how do they treat the Allies as they come through?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Well, that depends on local circumstances. Take the city of Caen for example. Caen goes through almost two months of intensive dismantling, principally by the British who bomb it to bits to try to extricate the Germans. And they fail repeatedly, week after week after week, as Montgomery’s trying to push into Caen. They fail to bust through and liberate that city. So for two months a city of 60,000 people becomes the central focus of British military operations in Normandy. At the end of July when Caen is finally liberated the city is completely a shambles; totally shattered. Most of the residents have fled and have become refugees. So the reception of the British and the Canadians who come in in July is fairly cool. There is a sense of grudging thanks, but it’s not a warm reception. There is a sense that churches should not have been bombed, that the Benedictine Abbey in Caen should not have been bombed and that the hospitals that were set up should not have been bombed, yet they were.  Of course this was all in the interests of liberation but this is the kind of suffering.

So there’s a terrific sense of sacrifice that French civilians had made in the cause of their own liberation and I think as historians of the Second World War we have focused principally on the Anglo American Military story and we do tend to lose perspective that there were people - for whom the war was being fought in many respects - but who did themselves have to pay a terrible price. We fail to fully integrate their particular story into our account of what liberation really is. What liberation is is the ripping out of a political and social order of one kind that you don’t like and replacing it with a very different kind of political and social order. There’s a dramatic sense of transformation and it comes in a period of intense violence as well. So as that social and political order is being restructured after liberation, its natural that there’s going to be tensions around what that order should look like, who should be in charge and what the political and social structures are going to be. So there increasingly became a sense in France that the Americans were heroes and that they’d done the right thing at the end of the day and had come and saved France yet again as they had done in 1917-1918.

But in the immediate summer of 1944 running on into 1945 people of France were licking their wounds, and they were significant wounds. 70,000 people died from Allied bombing in France. 70,000 people. That’s an extraordinary number of civilians to have died at the hands of their liberators. Was it necessary? Probably. Was it cruel and awful for those who suffered? Of course it was. So it’s a period of terrific mixed feelings on the part of the French during their liberation.

LAURENCE REES: Of course, the images that we all have from this period tend to be the famous images of the liberation of Paris and that’s telling a very different story - a story of enormous joy.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: There is a phenomenal photograph of, I think it’s the 28th Division marching down the Champs-Élysées, and it’s August 25, I think, 1944. These are battle-hardened men, but they’re looking their best. They’ve got their helmets shined and their green outfits are, for that particular moment, scrubbed, and they’re in fairly good shape. They’re marching down the Champs-Élysées and you can see the background of the Arc de Triomphe. So you have an iconic moment where you see American power and the great symbol of French glory brought together by the fate of the Second World War. That picture suggests a sense of pride and dutifulness, earnestness, on the part of the Americans, and celebration and terrific warm welcome on the part of the French because all the way along the Champs-Élysées thousands and thousands of people are giving them a rapturous welcome. It's a beautiful image and it’s one that is quite real; it reflects a real moment of enthusiasm on the part of the French and the Parisians.

But Paris did not suffer through the terrific aerial bombardments as much as the rest of Northern France. It certainly didn’t suffer in the way that much of Southern Holland or parts of Belgium and the Ardennes had suffered. It didn’t suffer the way the West of Germany suffered from allied bombing and it didn’t suffer the way that Southern Italy had been absolutely ground to a powder after two and a half years of war. So Paris could afford to be generous of spirit and could afford to be generous with its heart to welcome these heroic young Americans, because they hadn’t tasted the worst of the war. They had tasted a political occupation, a foul German occupation of France headquartered in Paris but they hadn’t tasted the horrible sacrifices of destruction through aerial bombardment the way that so many of other cities in Europe have, and thank heavens.